Do you know the (Banana Nut) Muffin Man?

(NOTE: This post was updated 2012-06-15,
scroll down toward the end of the article to see the update)

In the past week, my website has been inundated with spam comments that follow an interesting pattern: the user name associated with the comments all have something to do with banana nut muffins.

Banana Nut Muffins Spam Comments

As you can see, in the screenshot above (click to see full size), the comments are all from labels like “How to make Banana Nut Muffins” and “Banana Nut Muffins Recipe” and so on. The comments themselves have nothing to do with banana nut muffins; and the posts on my blog that they are commenting on also have nothing to do with banana nut muffins… in fact they don’t even have anything to do with cooking.

Normally, I don’t think twice about things like this. I get spam comments all the time. But over the course of the last three days, I have received over 500 comments from the Banana Nut Muffin spammer.  Here are some more examples:

More banana nut muffin spam comments

After seeing so many of these, in such a short period of time, I became curious.  So I decided to investigate some of the URL’s associated with the comments.

The URL’s themselves are all different, most of them are “profiles” on various blog or social networking sites, but every single one of them has a link to the same URL, specifically:

So I went to the website. Exactly as advertised, it is a banana nut muffin recipe. It has ingredients, instructions, and even a video.

But no ads.

As far as I can tell, this website is not selling anything at all.

This struck me as strange–a bit of a mystery, even.

Now, anyone who runs a website or is familiar with online marketing will immediately recognize the pattern in the above comments.  It is trying to generate what is known as a “link pyramid“. You can Google the term if you want to know the details, but the gist of it is this: you try to get as many as links as possible to an intermediate set of pages, usually online profiles, all of which link to your primary target site, which in this case is the banana nut muffin recipe page.

For various reasons involving the Google page ranking algorithm, this is supposed to make the target site rank more highly in Google’s search engine results. It is not an illegal technique, but it’s generally considered shady, and it certainly isn’t in keeping with the “spirit” of Google page ranking. It is a manipulation: an annoying one, although a perfectly legal one.

Some companies do it better than others. Really good companies will actually have a set of people who go around, finding relevant blog posts, and leaving relevant comments specific to the content of the article that they are commenting on.  This is honest, relevant, and achieves the goal… but is very time intensive.  Bad companies will blast any blog at all that seems to be getting a decent amount of traffic, will have a script leave generic comments that don’t reference the content of the article at all (see the above examples), and just hope that they get accepted.

Usually you see this technique used by second-rate marketing organizations working for gray-market commercial enterprises: things like scalped airline tickets or imitation designer hand-bags.

If some sales page were the target of these spam comments, I would have deleted them and not had a second thought about it.

But banana nut muffins?

“Perhaps,” suggested a friend of mine, “Some poor woman who doesn’t really know how the internet works just saw an ad. You know the type: We will drive traffic to your site for $25. And she thought it would be a nice way to get the word out on her muffin recipe. She just didn’t realize that the company would be sending out generic spam comments to unrelated websites and creating link pyramids.”

It sounded like a sensible enough explanation, but I wanted to research it some more.

I emailed the person through the contact form on the website. I tried to be as polite as possible, explaining the spam comments I was getting and asking if the owner of the website knew that this was going on.

We will see if I get a reply.

UPDATE: 2012-06-15

Three days later, I got a reply!  Apparently, the guy who owns the website is named Ken… although I think I will forever still think of him as “The Muffin Man.”  Here is what he told me:

Hi Greg,

Thank you very much for contacting me about this and I’m also very sorry for the late reply.
I admit that I do SEO, but I haven’t even done anything for the banana nut muffins site yet ( as you can see, I haven’t even completed the site ) as I’m busy with other stuffs lately.

What I think is that some guys are trying to do negative SEO to my banana nut muffins site to get it removed from Google rankings as I’ve tried asking a few SEO Companies for the pricing to get my site ranked higher in Google and some details but the pricing is too expensive because I know that it wouldn’t take much work to push it up. And maybe because they’re mad of me because of not hiring them and they set up a bunch of forum profiles and send tons of comments to them with some automated tools. Well, this is just a wild guess.

Seriously, lesson learnt ! I wouldn’t reveal my sites to anyone anymore.

Thanks again !

So my friend’s guess wasn’t that far off. This guy talked to some SEO companies, and… well, things didn’t go the way he wanted them to go.

I also wrote back to Ken, the Muffin Man, with one final question: Why Banana Nut Muffins?

He wrote back and said … he just liked them!

I suppose I can’t argue with that.  After all, I’ve bought domains for sillier reasons. (….have you seen  🙂

But in the end, the take-home message is this: There are SO MANY companies out there advertising things like “Give us $100 and we will get you massive hits on your site!” or “Give us $100 and we will drive traffic to your website!” or these other promises.

If you are ever considering it, remember this: you don’t know the people who are offering these services. You don’t know exactly what they will be doing to “promote” your website.  So act with caution, and if you ever talk to any of these groups… make sure you know what you are getting into. Or that special little project that you are so proud of could end up being just another source of spam… without you even knowing it!